André Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics - PDF

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André Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics writers in the field of aesthetics - especially those in the Anglo-American sphere - have had very little to say about André Malraux's works on the visual

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André Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics writers in the field of aesthetics - especially those in the Anglo-American sphere - have had very little to say about André Malraux's works on the visual arts, such as Les Voix du silence and La Métamorphose des dieux. Literary critics interested in Malraux have quite frequently commented on these works, but one needs to search long and hard in British or American textbooks on aesthetics, or in major disciplinary forums such as the British journal of aesthetics or the Journal of aesthetics and art criticism, to find any significant comment on Malraux's very substantial work in the field of visual arts. (1) malraux himself would not perhaps have been altogether surprised by this. In his introduction to La Métamorphose des dieux, he states clearly that the work is not intended as 'une esthétique,'-2- and there is little doubt that this comment can also be applied to his other works on visual art. Passionately interested in art though he was, Malraux did not see himself as an 'aesthetician' and would not perhaps have expected his writings on the subject to find a ready home among the deliberations of those who were. yet it would be a major loss to the field of aesthetics to let the matter rest there. As his books amply demonstrate, Malraux had an extensive - some have used the term 'encyclopaedic'- knowledge of the world of painting and sculpture, from Palaeolithic times to the present. His works are generously illustrated, text and images working in tandem to illuminate each other. Above all, he is a highly original thinker - one who, in a determined pursuit of an analysis that will make our world of art intelligible to us, regards no proposition or assumption as above question, no matter how well entrenched or taken-for-granted it may be. Though not attempting to provide a comprehensive account of Malraux's wideranging thinking about visual art, the present essay seeks to bring to light a number of major elements whose relevance to modern aesthetics appears to be much greater than has so far been recognised. Malraux can place substantial demands on his readers because he invites them into intellectual territory that can occasionally be unfamiliar, and asks them to come to grips with ideas that sometimes diverge in startling ways from conventional thinking. This feature, added to a writing style that is often quite unlike the somewhat dry and neutral mode favoured by aestheticians, has occasionally led commentators to suggest that Malraux's approach is unsystematic - one claiming, for example, that Les Voix du silence should be regarded as a 'lyrical and imaginative, rather than rational' account of the world of art. Such judgements should be viewed with great caution. As the following analysis will seek to show, Malraux sets out his arguments with great care, and while his style is often evocative, even poetic, it is never loose or ill-considered. The following discussion will attempt to approach Malraux's account of visual art with the care it merits, and will begin with a step by step exposition of those aspects of his thought that are relevant to the issues to be considered. The rewards of doing so, one finds, are well worth the effort. As the discussion will seek to show, Malraux's account of visual art is not only argued with clarity and force but also invites us to think about art in a new and quite revolutionary way. The opening chapter of Les Voix du silence is headed by a photograph of a gallery in one of the world's major art museums. The image is apt because art museums are, in many respects, where Malraux's thinking about art commences. Malraux begins his reflection, not with abstract definitions of art, but with the range of particular objects that contemporary Western culture considers to be art - and thus, to begin with, the objects displayed in the world's art museums. These, together with many objects that cannot be moved (such as stained glass windows and many frescos) make up what Malraux terms our 'musée imaginaire' - a vast art collection 'in our minds', so to speak, that far exceeds the scope of any individual institution no matter how large or well endowed. Unlike the approach frequently adopted in aesthetics, Malraux's thinking about art begins, therefore, not with by an attempt to conceptualise art in terms of an idea (such as 'beauty' or 'self-expression'), but with specific objects. He locates himself firmly within the contemporary Western culture whose responses he is seeking to understand, and begins not with abstractions but with the particular paintings, sculptures, and similar works, that the West has chosen to regard as works of art, and to admire as such. This, of course, is only a point of departure. Malraux's thinking has much further to go. But it is, as we shall see, an orientation of fundamental importance to the arguments that follow. -3- Malraux's next step is to extend his thinking beyond what the art museum is now, and to reflect on what it has been previously. A key fact, he argues, is that there has been enormous change within a relatively short period of time. Visitors to major art museums today are unlikely to show even mild surprise to encounter exhibitions that include, for example, statues from Egyptian tombs, Mesoamerican figurines, or ceremonial masks from Africa and Oceania. Yet objects from non-western cultures such as these, Malraux points out, as well as works from the West itself prior to the Renaissance (such as Romanesque sculpture), only began to gain admittance to the world's art museums from the early years of the twentieth century. Prior to that, art collections were almost exclusively devoted to post-renaissance European painting and sculpture, and selected works of Greece and Rome. Objects from other sources were seen merely as products of barbarian tastes, lack of expertise, or clumsy execution-4-, suitable perhaps for a collection of curios, or for ethnological or archaeological museums (once these came into being), but not at all acceptable under the same roof as a Raphael, a Titian, or a Rubens. The art museum, Malraux thus concludes, has undergone a radical transformation. For at least four hundred years, 'art' had signified painting and sculpture from specific periods of European civilisation. Within a short few decades from about 1900 onwards, it had extended its reach to include objects from the four corners of the earth, and from cultures stretching back to the dawn of prehistory. One obvious temptation would be to see this development as a natural consequence of Europe's growing familiarity with other cultures during the nineteenth century, and the increasing influence of historical and archaeological research. Malraux does not regard this as an adequate explanation. The inescapable fact, he points out, is that many of the cultures whose works first began to enter art museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had already been familiar to Europeans for long periods of time. The objects in question had, however, been seen simply as fetishes, idols, or curios - never as art. Malraux writes in La Métamorphose des dieux: ---L'Occident a découvert l'art africain avec les bananes? constatons qu'il n'avait pas découvert l'art mexicain avec le chocolat. Les explorateurs de l'afrique n'ont pas découvert l'art nègre, mais les fétiches; les conquistadores n'ont pas découvert l'art mexicain, mais les idoles aztèques.(5)--- The change in question is not due therefore simply to an increase in knowledge. The vast expansion in the domain of art that began to take place around 1900 involved nothing less than a new way of 'seeing' the objects in question. 'La métamorphose du passé' that took place, Malraux writes, --- fut d'abord une métamorphose du regard. Sans une révolution esthétique, jamais la sculpture des hautes époques, la mosaïque, le vitrail n'eussent rejoint la peinture de la Renaissance et des grandes monarchies; jamais les collections d'ethnographie, si vastes qu'elles fussent devenues, n'eussent franchi la barrière qui les séparait des musées.(6)-- - The transformation in question thus involved a radical break with what had gone before - 'une révolution esthétique'. It was, moreover, an event which, in Malraux's eyes, brought about a profound change in the very meaning of the term art and the experience it denotes - an issue which we are now in a position to explore in more depth. An aspect of the 'révolution esthétique' of central interest to Malraux is that, for the first time, the domain of art for the West came to include works created in cultures in which the very notion of art was unknown. The point at issue here is crucial to Malraux's reasoning, but it can easily be misunderstood and needs to be stated with care. Malraux draws a distinction between the means employed by visual art - the activities of painting, sculpting, drawing, carving, etc - and the ends for which different human communities have employed those means. The impulse to paint (or sculpt etc), he agrees, seems to have been part of the human make-up from the earliest times. Those means have, however, been employed for a variety of ends, and over many millennia - in fact, for all but a relatively brief period of human history - they were employed for the creation of objects whose ends were religious or ritual in nature ('sacred', to use one of Malraux preferred terms(7). They were the means of creating the Pharaoh's 'double' to aid him in the Afterlife; the means of shaping an 'ancestor figure' to house the spirit of a dead chief; the means of fashioning a votive offering to render thanks to the gods. Where evidence is available, it is clear that the various cultures that created such objects rarely possessed a concept comparable in meaning to our concept 'art'- and that this remained the case until as recently as medieval times. ('Le Moyen Age', Malraux writes, 'ne concevait pas plus l'idée que nous exprimons par le mot art, que la Grèce ou Égypte, qui n'avaient pas de mot pour l'exprimer.' 8) Yet, for us - for contemporary Western culture following the 'aesthetic revolution' Malraux describes (but only since then) - large numbers of these same objects have become 'art', and, indeed, are in many cases regarded as great works of art. On occasion, we may perhaps know something of their original purposes, although frequently enough, as Malraux reminds us, we know little or nothing at all. But whether we have such knowledge or not, those purposes - those 'ends' - are no longer the ends the objects now serve for us: they are not sacred for us; we do not place them in tombs, regard them as objects of reverence or as offerings for the gods. For contemporary Western culture, such objects - the figure of a bodhisattva in a fresco at Nara, a statue of the Pharaoh Zoser, or a Sumerian figure from Lagash (to cite three of the illustrations in the early pages of La Métamorphose des dieux) - have become something called 'art', and, in our eyes, belong in our art museums (and our 'musée imaginaire'). There seems in short to have been a puzzling transformation. An object that was (for example) once created to be a god in a culture that had no word for art, has become a 'work of art' in a Western culture that, often enough, is unsure even of the name of the god that the object once embodied. And this state of affairs, as Malraux observes, is by no means uncommon: 'une part considérable de notre héritage artistique nous est leguée tantôt par des hommes dont l'idée de l'art n'était pas la nôtre, tantôt par des hommes pour lesquels l'idée même d'art n'existait pas.'9. How is one to make sense of this transformation - this 'metamorphosis of the gods', to borrow Malraux's apt phrase? The discipline of aesthetics has only recently begun to turn its attention to issues of this kind,(10) but the prevailing response there, and in other relevant fields such as anthropology and the history of art, has been to argue, in effect, that no transformation is in fact involved - because the objects in question have always essentially been nothing else but works of art. Two main arguments have been advanced in support of this view. The first suggests that even if the original significance of the object - a painting or sculpture for example - appears to have been religious, and even if the culture in question did not possess a term comparable in meaning to our term art, the system of cultural 'practices' involved in the activities of painting and sculpture in all cultures is always sufficiently similar to that which we now associate with art for the term art to be applied appropriately in all cases. (Examples of such 'practices' mentioned by one writer include the 'exercise of specialised skill' or 'intentionally affording pleasure' to an audience. 11) The second argument shifts the emphasis to the features of the object itself. If we, in twenty-first century Western society, regard an object from another culture as a work of art, it is argued, this is because, knowingly or not, its creator endowed it with certain timeless, formal qualities (sometimes termed 'artistic universals') characteristic of art everywhere and at all times(12). The Egyptian sculpture created as the Pharaoh's 'double' has, according to this view, always been essentially what we see it as now - a work of art - because it possesses these timeless qualities. Both this and the previous argument lead to the same conclusion: there has been no 'metamorphosis of the gods' because the objects in question were never, except in some transitory, superficial sense, 'gods' to begin with. Their essential, permanent nature has always been 'work of art'(13). It is clear that Malraux would accept neither of these arguments. The cultural 'practice' (to borrow the term used above) that Malraux regards as crucial to the emergence of the contemporary notion of art is one that, far from being universal, is without precedent in any other culture, and quite recent even in our own - the art museum. 'Le rôle des musées dans notre relation avec les oeuvres d'art est si grand,' he wrote in 1951 in the opening paragraphs of Les Voix du silence, que nous avons peine à penser qu'il n'en existe pas, qu'il n'en exista jamais, là où la civilisation de l'europe moderne est ou fut inconnue; et qu'il en existe chez nous depuis moins de deux siècles. Art museums, Malraux argues, 'ont contribué à délivrer de leur fonction les oeuvres d'art qu'ils réunissaient'. So accustomed are we now to this situation - the estrangement of the work from its function - that we tend simply to take it for granted. We easily forget that 'Un crucifix roman n'était pas d'abord une sculpture, la Madone de Cimabue n'était pas d'abord un tableau, même la Pallas Athéné de Phidias n'était pas d'abord une statue.' In reality, however, the contemporary response is quite unprecedented, Malraux points out, and in encouraging the modern spectator to see these objects as 'sculpture', 'picture' and 'statue', the art museum has in fact brought about 'une relation toute nouvelle avec l'oeuvre d'art'. As a cultural 'practice' the art museum is, thus, both crucial in its effects and radically discontinuous with practices that have gone before, or that have existed in other cultures. Indeed, Malraux argues, it is a practice that other cultures and earlier periods of our own would have found quite incomprehensible, so that if, for example, 'nous parvenions à éprouver les sentiments qu'éprouvaient les premiers spectateurs d'une statue égyptienne, d'un crucifix roman, nous ne pourrions plus laisser ceux-ci au Louvre.'(14) Malraux also rejects the argument that the works we now include in our 'musée imaginaire' can all be shown to exhibit certain common formal properties (or 'artistic universals'). As commentators have often noted, a recurring theme in Malraux's analysis is the idea that each great artist destroys the forms he inherits, inventing new forms to take their place. Malraux certainly agrees that each artist begins with existing forms: 'Tout artiste,' he writes, 'commence par le pastiche'. The true artist, however, soon understands that interpreting the world in another man's language involves a kind of 'slavery' - 'une soumission à des formes, à un style'. Thus, 'ce qui sépare le génie de l'homme de talent, de l'artisan, voire de l'amateur... c'est que, seul entre ceux que ces oeuvres fascinent, il veuille aussi les détruire.'(15). Many of the most illuminating pages in Les Voix du silence and La Métamorphose des dieux are, in effect, case studies in this process of destruction, followed by the creation of new forms - wellknown examples being his account of the transformation of Egyptian and Oriental forms into those of Greece, of the Greek Apollo into the forms of early Buddhist sculpture, and of Roman forms into those of Byzantium. In each case, the process is presented as a genuine metamorphosis - the complete transformation of one set of forms into another, and not merely a modification that somehow leaves a 'timeless essence' intact. What then is Malraux's own answer to the dilemma we have outlined? Having rejected notions such as universal artistic 'practices' and timeless forms, how then does he account for the presence of the Pharaoh's 'double' (to stay with this example) in the 'musée imaginaire' as work of art? If one excludes arguments that seek to establish that it was 'essentially art' from the beginning - that there has been no essential transformation - how does one make sense of the fact that this once sacred object, created to aid the God-King in the Afterlife, is now a 'work of art'? This question begins to lead us into the heart of Malraux's thought because the answer lies, for Malraux, in a radical revision of the Western notion of art. In particular, it lies in a firm rejection of the view - effectively taken for granted in the discipline of aesthetics for the last three centuries - that when we speak of 'art', we refer to a permanent category of human experience, a human 'constant' common to all human societies now and in the past. Malraux's view is quite different. The Egyptian statue that we now admire as 'art', he argues, is not 'timelessly' or 'essentially' art any more than it was timelessly or essentially the Pharaoh's 'double'. It is both - and neither: 'both' in the sense that it has been a 'double' and is now a work of art; 'neither' in the sense that it is not essentially either. Malraux, in other words, is refusing to grant primacy to either state of being. The response to such objects that we now term the experience of 'art', he is saying, is itself as time-bound - as subject to change and potential consignment to oblivion - as the long-forgotten response towards those same objects that once demanded (for example) their veneration as gods (or indeed, as the very different response that later, often for millennia, saw them treated with indifference or disdain). In thus dissociating art from any sense of permanence (though not, as we have seen, denying the ubiquity of the means employed), Malraux is not predicting its demise, or engaging in speculation about the 'death of art'. He is not concerned with predictions of any kind but with nature of the particular experience we now call the experience of (or response to) 'art'. Effectively, he is arguing as follows: Presumably - or rather, selfevidently - the particular objects from non-western cultures, and from the pre- Renaissance West, that were once regarded with indifference or disdain but are now regarded as works of art must, in some way, have always had within them the potentiality to evoke the kind of response we now experience - the response that urges us, even when partly or wholly ignorant of their original purposes, to admire them as 'works of art', worthy of a place in our 'musée ima
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